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Monday, Apr 21, 2014

Echoes of True Detective in three recent novels

‘Not for Nothing’ by Stephen Graham Jones, ‘The Cutting Season’ by Attica Locke and ‘Rivers’ by Michael Farris Smith

By Jim Ruland

There's a scene in Repo Man where a car-lot attendant explains to a young repo man how the world operates, a worldview he calls the "lattice of coincidence."

"Suppose you're thinkin' about a plate of shrimp," he says. "Suddenly someone'll say, like, 'plate' or 'shrimp' or 'plate of shrimp' out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."

Lately, my plate of shrimp has been True Detective. It's been at least six weeks since the season finale and I can't stop thinking about the show. I see it everywhere—even in the books I read. But is it me, or is it the "cosmic unconsciousness"? Because the last three books I read all contained uncanny echoes of True Detective

Not for Nothing, one of Stephen Graham Jones' most recent novels (I say "one of" because he has at least four books coming out this year), is a detective novel about a disgraced, alcoholic cop named Nick Bruiseman who "worships at the temple of bad ideas" and is haunted by the past. Sound familiar?

Well, get this: Like Rust Cohle, Bruiseman lives in a storage unit. He even sounds like him at times:

"Each box you open in your mind, there's a smaller box inside it. Maybe this is something all storage unit security personnel eventually have to face at some point of the job." 

Told in the second person, the reader is implicated in Bruiseman's efforts to solve the crime. The novel begins as a fairly straightforward detective story—damsel in distress, tough-talking gumshoe, vindictive femme fatale, etc.—but is set in a small, shit-kicked town in West Texas where the phone book is short and memories are long. The result is a story with more twists than Reggie Ledoux's spiral tattoo. 

West Texas is a long way from Louisiana, but Attica Locke's novel The Cutting Season is set on the banks of the Mississippi River in Ascension Parish at a restored sugar-cane plantation called Belle Vie, a place with a dark and violent history that's now a historical attraction for tourists and rented out for weddings. What could go wrong?

When the body of a migrant worker is found on the plantation grounds, Caren Gray, whose ancestors worked those same fields, feels as if the plantation is somehow to blame.

"She should have known that one day it would spit out what it no longer had use for, the secrets it would no longer keep." 

Like True Detective, a miasma of evil that may or may not be supernatural hovers over the investigation. But the most striking similarity is the old red pickup truck—just like the one Rust Cohle drives—that shadows the protagonist.  

There aren't any plantations, or detectives for that matter, in Michael Farris Smith's debut novel Rivers. Published late last year, Rivers is a post-apocalyptic story set on the Gulf Coast. Hurricanes have gotten so bad that hurricane season is now a year-round affair and efforts to rebuild have been abandoned. The government has established The Line, a new border beyond which anarchy reigns. 

"There was no law. No service. No offering. No protection. Residents had been given a month's notice that The Line was coming and a mandatory evacuation order had been decreed and help was offered until the deadline and then you were on your own if you stayed behind. The Line had been drawn and everything below was considered primitive until the hurricanes stopped and no one knew if that day was ever coming."

Rivers is often compared to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and while Smith's language is well-suited to brooding reflections of a world gone mad, it has an extraordinarily fast pace for a literary novel, and like the water beyond the levee, the stakes just keep getting higher and higher. What's so terrifying about Rivers is that Smith's scenario seems entirely plausible. In fact, Rust Cohle predicted as much when he says, "This place will be under water in 30 years."

So, what the hell is going on? Is Rust Cohle haunting these novels? 

I think the more logical explanation is that all of these writers, including True Detective's creator, Nic Pizzolatto, are tapping not so much into the "cosmic unconsciousness" but the horror that comes with the realization that we live in a world in serious decline. The constants—the sun will shine, the rains will come (and then stop)—are shifting into the realm of the arbitrary. Yet we look for answers beyond human agency, even when the clues lead directly to us and the mess we've made here on Earth. 

It shouldn't take a detective, true or make believe, to figure that out. 

Jim Ruland is the co-author of the book, Giving the Finger. He blogs at www.vermin.blogs.com/bl




 
 
 
 
 
 
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